Of the trio of Mexican directors currently creating some of the best Hollywood films in years, Alfonso Cuarón is the hardest to pin down. Guillermo del Toro is the jolly pulp king, alternating comic-book movies like Hellboy with eerie thrillers (The Devil’s Backbone) and adult fairy tales (Pan’s Labyrinth), while Alejandro González Iñárritu is the most self-consciously serious (21 Grams, Babel). But Cuarón won’t stay still enough to be defined, with films ranging from the sexual coming-of-age Y Tu Mamá También to a variety of literary adaptations, including the feel-good A Little Princess to the less feel-good Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. If anything, his growing body of work shows a man increasingly comfortable with the darker side of humanity, and his latest film, Children of Men, is his most stirring to date. People throw around the word “dystopia” far too often, but Cuarón’s film gives the term new life in gritty and terrifying ways, as he sketches a dark future of unsettling plausibility. But what sets his vision apart from the rest, and what truly informs its sense of evil, is a persistent presence of hope and compassion flowing forth from a people who have otherwise descended into barbarism. He uses darkness to enhance the light.
Set in London in 2027, Children of Men opens with the world on the edge of willing apocalypse. Women, for no known reason, have been infertile for 20 years, and human society, faced with inevitable demise and no way to continue its existence, is sliding into greater chaos by the day. The first sequence is stunning both for its content and Cuarón’s masterful ability to convey the depths of the story through visual details, eliminating exposition and creating the feeling of a genuine world: Theo (Clive Owen) stops in for a cup of coffee at a local café, where customers are glued to TV screens broadcasting news of the death of Baby Diego, who, at 18 years old, was the youngest person on the planet. The cloying tribute music in the newsfeed is a reminder of the way society deifies its popular victims, right down to the “Baby” in front of the man’s name. Theo gets his coffee and leaves, and is only a few yards away when the entire café explodes from a terrorist bomb. But the destruction is just a part of life in dying London: The streets are lined with trash and beggars, and government propaganda encouraging citizens to report illegal immigrants is defaced with graffiti like “Last one to die, please turn out the light.” That the government has turned into Big Brother comes across just a little heavy-handed, but Cuarón makes it work, right down to the buses labeled “Homeland Security” that regularly round up refugees and ship them to camps so that Britain might blindly soldier on, maintaining a semblance of sanity. It’s far-fetched, only not really.
Theo is soon kidnapped by a few members of the terrorist group known as the Fishes (they use the Ichthys as a marker), which turns out to be headed by Julian (Julianne Moore), his estranged wife. She wants him to help arrange transfer papers for Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), a ‘fugee looking to escape the country without being arrested. Theo agrees, and winds up inadvertently joining the cause to escort Kee to safety because of her secret: Somehow, she’s become pregnant. No one knows why, least of all Kee, who said she’d never seen a pregnant woman before her own belly began to grow. But she’s carrying what could be the miracle that unlocks the survival of the human race, and the film becomes a protracted chase scene as Theo and Kee make their way with Julian and her lieutenant, Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor), through the countryside to the coast.
But to reduce it to a chase movie robs the film of its skill and power. Cuarón keeps the tension high throughout the film by allowing the realistic story to drive the action, not the artificial music stings or blurred cuts that are the hallmark of the genre. When Theo and Kee attempt an escape from a farmhouse, Cuarón eschews music and instead focuses on the shouts of the encroaching enemy and Theo’s grunting efforts to jumpstart an old car. Everything about the sequence feels urgent because of its recognizable reality, thanks also in part to Cuarón’s preference for in-camera effects mixed with delicate touches of computer-enhanced images. There are no jetpacks here, simply a lived-in, beat-up, decaying world that’s decorated with touches of technology to lend it a vivid texture. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who also worked with Cuarón on Y Tu Mamá También, uses natural light and shadow to astonishing effect, smearing the London streets with a gray to match the skies; an extended battle sequence toward the end unfolds in one glorious take that feels more real than any war movie in recent memory. The feeling of almost-us is heightened by the use of an eclectic soundtrack including a cover of “Ruby Tuesday” performed by Franco Battiato that’s creepier each time it’s used.
Based on P.D. James’ novel, the film is a dazzling balancing act: humorous but not comical, chaotic but not mindless, bleak but not defeatist. Owen cements his leading-man status by bringing a sense of gallows humor to his antihero, along with a British combination of anger and bemusement and drive. The rest of the cast is equally powerful, especially Ejiofor’s complex Luke, who hopes to act as a latter-day prophet and disciple for the coming child. Michael Caine provides a tempered comic relief as an aging hippie who deals pot to local cops, and Danny Huston manages to bring depth to a character who only appears for a few minutes.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the film is Cuarón’s somewhat hopeful outlook. This year’s other big movie set in a dark vision of future London was V for Vendetta, which traded on grand but empty statements in an exhortation to protect your personal freedom at all costs, even if it involves detonating major monuments while listening to classical music. But Children of Men is infinitely braver because Theo, despite all his world has become, still believes in a person’s basic decency and the possibility of a just government. Luke counsels Kee to stay hidden, but Theo thinks she should go public with her pregnancy to receive medical care; when Luke says that the government will take Kee’s baby because she’s a refugee, Theo disagrees. His compassion, his willingness to forgive a ruling body that’s slowly tearing itself apart, speaks to his, and Cuarón’s, belief that darkness always brings a dawn. Theo’s compassion only means something because of its severity; he knows the evil men are capable of, and despite that — because of it — he holds out hope. Children of Men presents a frighteningly possible future of our world, and Cuarón knows we don’t have to let it come to pass.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.Eschaton, Anyone?
Film | January 17, 2007 | Comments ()